Friday, September 26, 2014

The Flight to London – Phase 2

I will write about Turkey, I promise. There is so much to say about the two weeks while I left my laptop behind in Istanbul and traveled across the desert, took hot air balloon rides over the fairy chimneys and cave churches of Cappadocia, experienced an extremely authentic Turkish Bathhouse, hiked through the lush, rocky hills of the coast, sailed among sunken cities and remote Mediterranean islands, climbed to the top of ancient Roman theaters, walked the worn marble streets of Ephesus and, well there was a Trojan horse, but it was pretty kitchy to be honest.

The horse certainly added to what was otherwise not such an
exciting ruin site, at least.
 Right now, I’m thinking about Northern Ireland, though.

Yesterday I sent home a nearly-9 kilo box of ceramics from Greece, brightly colored lamps from Turkey and a Christmas tree ornament from each country I’ve visited along the way, tucked safely between layers of summer clothes – dresses and tank tops I won’t be needing any more.

As I write I am flying to London, watching the cities I passed through months ago – Belgrade, Budapest, Prague, Amsterdam – dissipate eastward before me on the flight tracker screens.

This is a turning point for me and this trip. I’ve always seen the journey as two separate pieces – the vacation and the work. I’ve been on the road for nearly 3 months (more than 3 months if you begin counting the morning I drove away from Pasadena) and I have officially finished the “vacation” piece of my trip. Ten countries, two continents, eighty-eight days of bouncing from city to city, camera at my side, collecting pennies in currencies I’ll never use again.

Now comes what may be the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done.

I’m going to go and try to do that thing I’ve been telling everyone I dream of doing for 7 years. I’m putting my money where my mouth is in a way that doesn’t even feel possible after so many years of halfheartedly saying I’m a writer. I have spent years plotting my way to this flight, adding up dollars, received gifts from friends and family and strangers to make it happen. And here I am. Once again, no trumpets. No particular grandeur. No epiphanies. Just another body filling another seat no this airplane.

I remember last time I got off the plane from London to Belfast, I wrote a jubilant Facebook status somewhere along the lines of “Take THAT, life goals!” At this moment, I looking towards at least two and a half months of “research” and writing – whatever that will turn out to mean – and I feel my gut turn over.

What have I gotten myself into?

I do believe we should follow what we fear the most. I know that more than anything in the world, I want to be able to call myself an author, to share my art on a wider scale, to see my own name listed on the spines of a book or two. It is time to claim myself as an artist, push myself to really work on the book, to make this happen. I’ve carved out time and space in my life. Now I just need to walk into it with my head held high and my heart opened to whatever stories are about to emerge around me.

In a few days I’ll take a ferry from Liverpool to Belfast – which sounds so much more romantic than an airplane, doesn’t it? – and, well, a lot of plans I hoped to make have fallen through or have sounded off into silence so far. I do ultimately believe there is a reason for this, though. Things are at play here. The best option for me is going to come together.

One time John Colburn, my Senior Literary Arts teacher at Perpich, said wistfully in class, “I’m looking for my next cliff to jump off – artistically, of course.” That’s what this feels like to me – my artistic cliff. It’s been time for this for a long time now. I have been waiting for this moment for years. Looking down from up here, at all those weeks and hours of what appears from this angle to be empty time makes me want to turn back.

But here I am. I’ve been brave so far on this trip. I can continue to do it now.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Last Writing in my First Notebook

I filled up my first little notebook I brought along on this trip in 2 months – faster than I ever have before. This is the last thing I wrote there.

I arrived on Lipsi when the moon was hollow, a blank shot into the sky and the stars were drunk on their own brilliance in her absence. On my first night as we walked across the valley to the little house where we stayed, amid the profound silence after so many cities, the three of us stopped dead in the road, dumbstruck at the constellations we couldn’t name. Above us the Milky Way was a clear road running northwest and the Big Dipper pointed to the North Star, but the rest of the sky was a mess of signs, maps and signals the ancients knew but we had no ability to decipher.

I arrived in Lipsi all out of words, my pens running dry, my back aching from trains and so many beds and the heaving and rearranging of the pack.

I left Lipsi the night of the full Harvest moon, unable to put down my pen on that silver midnight, sitting upon the porch, looking over the vineyard and valley. I felt clear headed and energized again, a little bit of nothing and a lot of everything. What a gift, I thought, both the time when my words run dry and the new rush of stories.

The night before Abby, Genevieve and I had walked up the hill to another party, this one at a neighbor’s farm. We rounded the crest of the hill top and the bright lights reflected the smoke rising from barbeques and dust rising from the ground where everyone danced. The same band played, several pigs, goats and fish had been roasted up for guests, wine was being poured generously by the host and the singing, dancing mayor made another appearance, with that same winning politician smile and clean button-down shirt look.

There were hours of dancing: the same simple circular steps we learned the week before, faster, jumpier jigs, dances only for the men that involved the singer calling out silly things the young men had to do while an old man who wasn’t pleased with their performance would whip them. While the men danced, the three of us would sit to the side, sipping wine and appreciating a place where young men were willing to participate in folk dances, jumping lightly to steps they’ve been practicing since they were toddlers.

I had to work in the morning the next day, so at 1am I stumbled away from the party alone, kissing my new, sweet friends goodnight on their sweaty cheeks. The music followed me, echoing through the hills, but the lights were gone as soon as I turned the corner around the top of the hill. And suddenly I’m alone in the silver light of the nearly full moon and I could cry again, this time for the delight of it. There was nothing I couldn’t see here – the sheep and goats maaing quietly around me, each rock on the gravel road before me, the island of Leros across the water threading waves through the moonlight – it was like a winter night in Minnesota when the snow reflects the light of the moon and you are immersed into such a state of silence by the silvery, gentle love of this rare light.

My heart was so full as I waked home that night, breathing in the fresh, warm air, watching my shadow drift behind me on the road, seeing my freckles change colors in the moonlight. Everything on Lipsi, all the joy, newness, swimming, late nights, long walks, moonlit scooter rides, all of it had lead up to that moment of complete fullness and contentment.

Sitting on the porch on my last evening, I thought about how I kept saying as I was leaving Los Angeles that I felt a part of myself was missing and I needed to go reconnect myself to it; though I couldn’t say exactly what this meant. I still don’t know, but I suddenly realized I don’t feel disconnected from myself in that way anymore. The act of shaking and changing my physical circumstances so thoroughly, all the quiet time, getting my hands dirty with soil, writing nearly every day, seems to have brought me back to a part of myself I drifted away from. Or to a new side of myself at least.

Neale Donald Walsch, the author of Conversations With God, says that the point of life is to continually be striving to create ourselves anew in the grandest version of our greatest vision of who we are. If this is true, and I believe that it is, life is a continual kneading of the dough of ourselves and pulling the insides out into fresh air, finding experiences that rhyme with and enhance our pasts, though don’t repeat them. I’ve been allowing a new version of myself to arise these last 60-odd days, speaking my truth in a new way in so many new places. Come to a new side of the prism of my life, a new shade of light after all the last delights I’ve felt and reflected.

And thank god for it: my insides pulled out to breathe a little in this clear Aegean air. Turning, pulsing, meeting new eyes, finding new electricity and connections. New versions of the story, written and re-written at another table at twilight, another valley sweeping before me as the wine glass shivers with the movement of my pen upon paper.

My porch on Lipsi

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Inauguration

August is a busy time on Lipsi Island. Not only are the grape and fig harvests in full swing, but the island is also crowded with tourists and the weather is beautiful yet hot, a confluence which seems to mean sleeping goes onto a back burner.
The days are so hot that it’s not until the sun sets that you can begin to cook food. After dinner everyone goes into town to congregate. The ouzeries along the port are filled with people drinking and snaking on fried octopus and other fresh seafood until all hours of the night and morning, enjoying the months of hustle and parties. There is even a club opened for the summer months.

Lipsi village and port in the early morning
On the last Saturday in August, the town celebrated the inauguration of the first new mayor in 28 years, as well as the end of the Italian tourist season. In the month of August nearly every voice you hear on the beach is speaking Italian – the island was occupied by Italians during the Second World War and now it’s a very popular holiday destination. In September, when the weather is more manageable, as Jenny our British housemate tells us, the tourists from the UK and other northern countries arrive.

It was a surprisingly chilly night: an incessant breeze was coming in from the north and I was wearing jeans for the first time in a month. As we left the farm and began the steep walk up and down the hill to town, we could already hear the music in the square two kilometers away. We arrived into town and were greeted with round after round of “Kalispera” from neighbors and friends who have stopped by the farm in the last few days.

Lipsi is truly a small community. Within a week I feel as though I’ve seen, if not met, nearly everyone and it’s nearly impossible to go anywhere in town any time of the day without running into at least several people you know. Abby, another American who has lived here more than a year sighs wistfully as she speaks about being anonymous again. Making everything more complicated, everyone seems to have one of just a few names. Kostas will take out a bottle of wine in the evening and say “This is from Manoli’s vineyard.”

“Manoli who we saw today in line at the petrol station?”

“No –”

“You mean Manoli who owns the restaurant?”

“No, no. One of the other 45 Manolis living here.”

Of course, to be fair most of the American women who are on the island right now seemed to be named Katie, so maybe this goes both ways.

Once the summer tourist season is over, most of the restaurants in town close for the winter, the tourist shops and street stands shutter. It’s just locals, goats and fishing boats left and only the bakery with 24 hour WiFi remains opened consistently. Even now, there is a single gas pump on the island and it’s only opened for fuel from 11:00 am to until 12:30, three days a week. The import and EU costs of gas are so high, it would cost Kosta nearly $200 to fill up his 4-door Suzuki. Luckily there’s only so much driving one can actually do on the island.

The four of us from the farm sit together at the ouzerie next to the water, order wine, ouzo, octopus and other small plates. It doesn’t take long for four women to become very intimate in a space like this: sharing small rooms with creaky beds, picking figs and stomping grapes together in the sun, no internet and phone connections to distract ourselves, late nights with long walks from the farm to town and back again. We have very quickly become close friends, sharing and laughing about a little bit of everything, but always inevitably we seem to circle back to love. How we’ve found it, lost it, woven it into our lives, cut it gently or sharply from our hearts. Our hopes and fears. Somehow there was a push for each of us to come to this island, this lonely crop of hills in the sea, and in some way, love has to do with it for each of us.

Catie, from New Jersey, has a theory which she told me on my first night here: you can’t come to Lipsi and not get kissed. I laughed and shook my head. Romance abroad has not only not been my goal, I’ve actively recoiled from the offer of it more than once already. Well, all I’ll say about that is you laugh at fate and you get proven wrong.

Me, Jenny, Abby, Catie and Genevieve 
Our table at the ouzerie gets bigger and bigger, we get sufficiently cozy from wine drinking, and we walk across the port to the square where most of the town is gathered to dance and drink more. There’s free wine being passed out, a fiddle, piano and drummer and circles of Greek dancers spin round and round, people slipping in and out throughout the upbeat 10-15 minute ballads. We stand on the sides watching, until one song ends and a well-dressed man in a button-down shirt and neck tie takes the microphone and begins singing. People step forward and start a solo, spinning, arm waving dance before him, looking otherworldly in the bright lights.

After watching this for a few minutes I ask Kostas if the new mayor is around anywhere, anyway.

“That’s him singing,” Kostas nods towards the well-dressed man smiling out at the crowd, like any good politician. “We’ve got ourselves a singing, dancing mayor.”

The mayor sings a few more ballads and we sip at wine from the sidelines, watching the locals of all ages and sexes come forward to dance, either spinning in the center, clapping their hands, or kneeling along the side of the circle, clapping encouragingly. The slower songs end and with a faster paced opening, people rush into a circle, hands clasped together and held high, the mayor at the front of the line. Genevieve and I look at each other, set our wine and purses on the ground – it’s really so small a place you can leave any amount of expensive electronics or your drink around and not risk anything being taken or dropped into it – and break into the circle, learning the simple steps in just a few turns.

Something that I think is wildly missing from American culture is space to dance without being overly sexualized. When I was a little girl we had friends and neighbors who would gather every few months at the town hall and play the fiddle, banjo and drums and call out dance steps. My memories of these Wild Thyme Dances are utterly gleeful: spinning round a room full of skirts, bells, laughter and community. There were May Pole dances in the spring as well, tying and weaving long ribbons round the tall pole, skipping and ducking around your friends at the end of the long North Woods winter. At some point around middle school these events petered away and now every time I visit Europe I feel the astounding lack of tradition in my own culture and wish for more Wild Thymes.

In Greece there was a taste of this, smiling across the circle. You feel a part of something in moments like this, even if you can’t understand the language everyone seems to be shouting around you, holding hands and stepping in time with strangers. Even ten minutes of the same step, round and round, didn’t feel boring.

We were out until 2:30 am – almost unreal for me, tending to be a bit of a sour puss when it comes to staying up late at night. I have to work to change my internal clock here, but it seems to be haoppening, at least for a few weeks. Which I guess is all the people of Lipsi are doing anyway, because in the winter everything goes quiet, the hills turn green and lush, the people sleep through the long nights.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Wine Making and Olive Cracking

A week slipped by here at Dimitris Farms faster than I could have anticipated, probably faster than any other WWOOFing site I’ve been at. We work six hours a day, either in the morning or the evening, spending the rest relaxing by the ocean, or walking two kilometers over the steep hill to town for a treat at the bakery. It’s hot: we work slowly and determinedly, waking early and moving to the porch to rest and drink tea during the hottest hours at midday.

Sun drying the figs.
We are in the middle of the fig harvest and after we feed and water the animals we spend our mornings on all three nearby properties, tugging each soft fruit gently from the stiff, hard branches. We have long bamboo hooks to pull higher fruits down to us, but I like to climb for the ripe figs when I can. I feel like a little girl again: always day dreaming about other worlds and lives, but here I actually am in a total different world, able to live out a totally different life.

From the ground and the highest branches we pluck the already sun-dried, browned and withering figs, which we cut opened and lay out in the sun to fully dry for two weeks, then roast in the oven with sesame.

Nothing is growing as well as it should this summer - a common complaint I’ve heard from nearly every farmer I know around the world. On Lipsi this spring there was a late, heavy rain and the next morning the weather turned brutally hot. This abnormal weather caused a mildew to spread throughout the grapes too quickly to be stopped by organic methods and the fig trees to lose much of their top leaves. Only a small barrel of wine is fermenting now, the rest in the wine room lying empty until the smaller batch of late harvest grapes come in. I’m told by people who were here last summer that crates and crates of figs used to come off the trees each day, and this year we’ve lucky to get 2 and a half.

When I arrived, Kostas and the other WWOOFers had just completed the stomping and barreling of what grapes had been harvested. On my first afternoon, he pulled the dried thyme plugging the hole at the top of the barrel so that I could hear the frantic fizz of fermentation within.

The grapes, ready to be stomped
But I got lucky: Kostas decided we should try an “experiment” with a batch of green grapes he received from a neighbor this week, so I was able to help with the making of one batch, hopefully we’ll get around 100 bottles. It’s certainly not the traditional way he makes wine here, or a method I’ve ever heard of before, but it looks more and more like I’ll be staying in Europe longer and coming back to the farm in February and March in order to learn to prune and plant the vines. In this case, I’ll get to taste a bottle of this wine, which Kostas will cork in 40 days and I’ll report back about the quality of the experiment.

Catie and I ready to stomp for a few hours
After Catie had spent an afternoon pulling stems from the grapes, she and I put them into buckets and began stomping. With a normal crop of grapes, the floor of an entire room of Kostas’ wine house is covered in the fruit and a whole group of people stomp together for an afternoon. It only took Catie and I a few hours to stomp out most of the juice from the few buckets we had. We left a layer of the skin and pulp on top of the juice and waited to see if fermentation would start overnight.

Luckily it did, and for two days the juice fermented in the buckets which we stirred every few hours. On Saturday, Genevieve and I began to filter the juice from the pulp into glass jars, setting aside the pulp and skins. To get every last drop of the grape juice out of the pulp which was still swimming in unbottled liquid, Kostas thought the easiest way – rather than another round of stomping – would be to hand-squeeze the pulp.

So for another hour and a half, we picked up lumps of skins, seeds and other grape innards and squeezed then in our fists like angry children, dropping dry remains into a bucket to be mixed with the aging vinegar later.

Normally, there is a grape press for this stage, but there were so few grapes Kostas said the cleanup would take just as long as we spent squeezing, filtering, squeezing and filtering.

The pulp, still with some juice, and the bottles
we filled with fermenting wine.
The juice in the bottles looks like fresh cider, not clean and clear wine. All of the thickness should fall to the bottom of the bottle and will be filtered out in 40 days at the bottling stage. The pulp will go aside and be dropping into the vinegar barrel. For now the four huge bottles of liquid will rest and ferment, simmering gently as the sugars dance the juice into alcohol.

I’ve learned a lot on the farm: how to make stuffed grape leaves, cheese straight from the goat’s teat, the details of organic wine cultivation and the basics of the Orthodox religion. There are too many processes and stories to tell, but I’ve been photographing nearly everything, so enjoy these details.

I also spent an afternoon hand-cracking olives between two rocks, then wandering to the ocean to collect sea water for them to soak in under the hot sun for a few weeks, softening and ripening. The olive oil pressing will happen later in the year, so I don’t get to help with this, but as we squeeze the juice from the grapes, we boiled the last of the alcohol from 15 year old vinegar, which we will bottle later in the week. 

The cheese we made on the stove from goats milk.
Jenny, Geniveve and I making the stuffed grape leaves
The stuffed grape leaves
Cracking the olives before they get laid out in the sun